Libertarianism and the shutdown

Yesterday, Paul Krugman published a deceptive, sloppy, and self-contradictory opinion article in the New York Times entitled “Trump’s Big Libertarian Experiment.” The premise: the shutdown delivers what all libertarians want, and the shutdown (this is strongly implied) demonstrates just how silly libertarians are.

This is nonsense. First off, Trump is decidedly not a libertarian. Second, government shutdowns have occurred for decades–are all of these “libertarian” experiments? Finally, no libertarians that I’m aware of have ever favored mercurial spending freezes that sweep the rug out from under people who’ve come to rely on government programs. Principled reform is a bit different from abrupt financial lurches.

The disruption and harm caused by sudden spending jolts have no bearing on whether a libertarian society could work or not. Krugman points out that businesspeople are already enraged that the Small Business Administration has ceased issuing loans, an organization that many libertarians have claimed is unnecessary. Of course they’re angry–they expected something that suddenly has ceased. That has absolutely nothing to do with whether the SBA is necessary; it just demonstrates that people get ticked off when their expectations are suddenly dashed. The shutdown proves nothing about whether the private market could ultimately supply any benefits offered by the SBA.

He also says that work at the FDA has dwindled. Routine inspections have ceased. He has zero evidence that this has caused even an iota of harm to anyone, but the implication is clear: we’ll all be confined to the toilets soon as E. coli swamps the country. He marshals no evidence to confront whether state regulators can adequately fill this role, or whether tort law and market forces can suffice.

Libertarians envision a society in which many roles currently served by government can find contractual and common-law counterparts (or not, if it turns out no one wants the service). Libertarians certainly don’t believe in blasting holes in long-standing social structures without warning, without forethought, or without transition.

Ironically, to the extent we do confront Krugman’s silly claims, it appears that the shutdown’s impact has been minimal despite huge numbers of furloughed employees. The New York Times, aside from Krugman’s disposable rhetoric, also published a comparison of the number of furloughed employees (800,000 by their estimation) to private industries. The number of furloughed employees, for example, exceeds twice the number of people employed by Target. I don’t think this tells us what the New York Times thinks it tells us. These stats beg the question as to whether these positions are necessary at all. That said, any negative impact from the shutdown that actually does exist–aside from the furloughed workers losing money–should be attributed to social and economic disruption resulting from spending turbulence, not to the actual necessity of the government programs affected.

Please keep it civil

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